Modi seizes control of the political discourse
by Sandhya Jain on 08 Apr 2014 3 Comments

As parts of Tripura and Assam kick off the lengthy voting process in one of the most keenly contested parliamentary elections, this will possibly be the first time that the northeast is not perceived as marginal to Indian democracy. Mr Narendra Modi can legitimately claim credit as the first prominent leader to give these States a sense of belonging to the civilisational matrix of India, the first to note that the Seven Sisters have long been eight, Ashtha Lakshmi as he calls them.


This is not mere quibbling over numbers, but a display of sensitivity towards a region that has experienced callous neglect at the hands of successive regimes at the Centre, so that its huge potential remains untapped, its territory encroached by neighbours and swamped by demographic invasions, all of which have given the people a sense of siege.


The feeling of being lesser citizens has been aggravated by incidents of harassment of youth from the region studying in Delhi, molestation of young girls, and the gruesome beating to death of a youth, ostensibly over his looks! In several meetings, Mr Modi has expressed sorrow over the incidents and emphasised their equal citizenship of India, even as Congress-UPA leaders maintain stony silence despite the incidents having taken place under their nose.


Narendra Modi has taken the nationality issue further by being the first important leader to promise to redress the lack of citizenship rights for those who fled Pakistan-occupied Kashmir after the 1947 invasion, and those who arrived later from West Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars. These families have been languishing in neglect for decades in camps in Srinagar. He has reiterated that the exiled Pandit community must get justice.


This ability to address the core of an issue without getting embroiled in community affiliations or biases has enabled Narendra Modi to frame the terms of debate in this election, putting his rivals on the defensive! The Congress especially has been at a loss to match his powerful oratory and rebut his myriad charges and challenges on the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides, decline of manufacturing and employment opportunities, economic stagnation, price rise and inflation, lack of opportunities for education and skill development, and above all, the better performance of non-Congress governments, mainly those led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


Having seized the intellectual high ground, Narendra Modi has deftly de-fanged the warped (anti-Hindu) definition of secularism in India that has hitherto been wielded as a weapon to demonise and disarm the BJP, and Hindus in general. He has done this by adroitly lampooning the word, equating it with a mask behind which the ruling Congress, its allies and friendly parties hide their multiple failures on issues of critical importance to the people, viz., water for farming, employment and opportunities for youth, alleviation of poverty, the physical safety of women and girls, et al. The bogey of ‘secularism first’ or ‘secularism in danger’ is raised by non-BJP parties to dodge accountability for their sins of omission and commission whenever they are in the dock, he has charged in rally after rally, leaving them fuming in impotent rage.


To the Congress’s consternation, Mr Modi has repeatedly raised the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam, who are ‘stealing’ (cornering) the resources and employment opportunities that rightfully belong to Indian youth. He has boldly condemned the State Government’s policy of interning Hindu youth in detention camps on grounds that they are not bona fide citizens, as part of vote bank politics, while refusing to seriously identify and deport illegal immigrants. He has clearly asserted that India is, and must be, the natural refuge of Hindus in distress in any part of the world; no politician has ever made such a public assertion.  


But Mr Modi has conducted his marathon campaign as a parallel chargesheet against the ruling Congress, accusing UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi of functioning as a puppet master and her National Advisory Council (NAC) of being an extra-constitutional body with no accountability. In this spirit, he robustly attacked the Prevention of Communal Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2013, a brainchild of the NAC, for poaching on matters on the State List, violating the federal structure of the Constitution, and being motivated by vote bank politics. He has pointedly attacked the Muslim-centric Sachar Committee, a brainchild of the Congress president, and denounced the attempt to force a communal census on the armed forces, which was mercifully resisted.


It is obvious that Mr Modi is an unconventional politician who evades straitjackets. At Patna on October 27, 2013, when bombs exploded in the penumbra of his Hunkar Rally (six unexploded bombs were later found at the venue; one beneath the podium), he displayed sterling qualities, issuing an appeal to Hindus and Muslims to unite against divisions fostered by failed leaders and fight the common enemy of poverty. On another occasion, he berated Mr Rahul Gandhi for claiming that after the Muzaffarnagar riots Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) contacted Muslim youth in the relief camps and told him to either prove his allegation or apologise for the “communal slur”.


A quintessential heritage politician, Rahul Gandhi has not been able to counter Mr Modi’s barbs on issues such as party nominations to tainted leaders (Pawan Bansal, Ashok Chavan); alliances with convicted leaders (Lalu Prasad Yadav); changing the party candidate for Vadodara; the entrepreneurial skills of Robert Vadra, et al. Nor has he contributed a single idea to the national discourse.


Now, as voting begins in the multi-phase polls, a question agitating the minds of citizens is whether political parties enjoy a level playing field. In November 2013, when there was no model code of conduct, Mr Modi mentioned a “khooni panja” in the context of the genocide of Sikhs in 1984. The Election Commission chided him for remarks “injurious to the cause of decorous political discourse”. Yet, with the model code operational, even suo moto notice was not taken of Sonia Gandhi’s appeal to the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid that Muslim (communal) votes should not be divided. The Imam later accepted the appeal and endorsed the Congress.


Since then, a sting on Ayodhya having elicited yawns, attempts are being made to target Mr Modi through his principal lieutenant, Mr Amit Shah. Asking people to avenge grievances through the ballot, rather than with bullets, is unexceptionable. Yet a cacophony has been raised and a report sought; this is unfortunate.

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